The United States Agency for International Development and the U.S.-based World Cocoa Foundation have agreed to launch a multi-year partnership aimed at improving education and providing greater opportunities for thousands of young people in cocoa farming communities throughout Ivory Coast and Ghana. Phillip Wellman reports from our West Africa Bureau in Dakar.
The partnership, known as ECHOES, which stands for Empowering Cocoa Households with Opportunities and Education Solutions, will be working with the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana to develop a curriculum that will provide both academic and life skills training for students.
A recent independent survey names education as a major challenge facing cocoa farming communities in West Africa.
The survey says that while government efforts have improved enrollment rates, a lack of adequately trained teachers and the relevancy of what they teach continue to be major problems in rural areas.
President of the World Cocoa Foundation, Bill Guyton, says that outside teachers, mostly from the United States, are being brought to Ivory Coast and Ghana to provide training. He says the goal is to have local teachers teaching by the end of December when ECHOES is expected to be fully operational.
Guyton says that the World Cocoa Foundation, which is supported by over 60 chocolate companies and trade associations throughout the world, currently has several programs in West Africa aiding cocoa farmers. But he says what is missing is an outreach program to youth, which he says ECHOES will provide.
"I think the reason why the chocolate companies and the World Cocoa Foundation membership really value this is because it goes beyond just corporate social responsibility," said Bill Guyton. "It is an investment in the future. And young people that have skills training and good education will become productive adults, whether they choose to be cocoa farmers or in some other discipline."
Some analysts say that organizations like the Wold Cocoa Foundation should begin putting more of an effort on securing a fixed price for cocoa bought from farmers rather than making them dependent on charity.
They say thirty years ago, large-scale cocoa farmers made enough money to send their children to university and small-scale farmers could provide, at the very least, a few years of elementary education for their children.
Since then, various factors have siphoned profits away from the farmer, leading to progressive impoverishment. At the same time, chocolate companies in the West continue to supply affordable products to their customers.
Education Program Director at the World Cocoa Foundation, Charlie Feezel, says ECHOES will both strengthen coca communities and benefit Western companies.
"We offer them expanded opportunities that help to diversify the social and economic base of the communities," said Charlie Feezel. "That way we ensure their longevity and a continued healthy community and for us the strengthened supply of cocoa."
Feezel says that ECHOES is currently scheduled to run for two years. But he says it is hoped that the program's success will allow it to continue indefinitely.
"As part of its success we hope to see all stakeholders buy into the program to the degree that it continues on," he said. "Indeed, one of our goals for this program is to develop a replicable model of rural-relevant education in West Africa."
Seventy five percent of the world's cocoa is grown in West Africa. In both Ivory Coast and Ghana, the cocoa industry is made up of mainly small-scale farmers. Analysts say the farmers have had little leeway in improving their poor work conditions, both in regards to powerful, private operators who buy their cocoa and governments who set the rules.